Through Wounds and Death: About Medical Museums

Above: ‘Santa Medicina’, 2019, sculpture by Eleanor Crook. Photo courtesy: Science Museum Group. Find out more about this art here.

I was told once that in France, the streets close to the cemeteries are often called “equality”. Though far from the truth, the philosophy remains: Death is the only fair and equal thing to everyone. Inevitably it is, how we reach the final equality varies: Trauma, accident, illness, and disease, all may play the shears of Atropos.

Founded by doctors and medical practitioners, many European medical museums used to be places where portions of someone’s bodies were severed, processed, preserved, and studied. From schools to museums, students became visitors, teaching specimens turned into collections. These are the places that present the most intimate and private aspect of one’s lives. While studying the anatomy of death is fundamental in understanding how not to die, for a long time we forget that these places and their “collections” also remind us how one has lived.

Is It Morbidity or Is It Curiosity

While there is always a museum that caters to one’s particular interest, I often find myself going an extra length to justify my reason to visit yet another medical museum, even though no one questions me.

I first became intrigued by the history of disease when reading The Sick Rose by Richard Barnett and The Anatomical Venuses by Joana Ebenstein. The fine line separating factual medical science and art blurred, and I was mesmerised and confused at the same time: The soft complexion of pastel and water colours used to depict the rosary cheeks and women’s satin, are the same to record the aggressive diseases: The pus, the gangrene, the rotten, and even the smell. How brutal. How beautiful.

Curiosity is the basic motivation for any inspired medical student, but as an amateur, I need a lot more reasons than curiosity to justify my interest in looking at the dying, and I think many of the avid visitors like me have asked themselves the question: Am I morbid? Or am I curious?

Yet to defy the morbidity in curiosity is as if to defy the visual perception in most medical museums: To see, to watch, and to look. Many may argue that modern museological approaches should involve a multisensory design, yet to think like a doctor, vision is the quintessential of observation. The morbid curiosity can only take one to see, but to look at what lies behind each “case study” requires more than that.

However, museums can’t ask visitors to simply look beyond the glass jars, skeletons, and les écorchés and expect them to understand the living before the death, which brings us to the names and the labels.

The Anonymous Album

I remember being part of a private group to the Gordon Museum of Pathology in London back in 2022. During our free time exploring the place, I noticed that there were large-sized albums placed around the mezzanine. Flipping through the pages I realised that each page contained a brief description to the corresponding specimen.

No photo and video was allowed, but I jotted down a few passages after I finished sketching.

He could read and write and his mental facilities and memory were both good. He was near-sighted, but his taste was normal and his hearing acute.

Hydrocephalus. J.C. 1824 (29 years old)
Idiopathic Megacolon… a woman of poor intellect and an epileptic subject from childhood… A 478

It was a humid early summer afternoon. By the time we stepped out of the museum, London was muggy, enshrouded in vehicle exhaust. The images of severed organs immersed in preserving liquids were still in my mind as I followed the others through the busy traffic. I was thinking about how the education of a young doctor differed from a museum professional. For doctors, the name of the owner of a specimen is concealed for two reasons: To remain neutral, without doctors being prejudiced of any racial and social economic profiling, and to protect privacy of the owner and patient. And yet, museums, despite a long dark history of obliterating the names of anyone but the funders, donors, and sponsors (predominantly white), for which the reason was never to remain neutral or to protect the privacy, start recognising more the names of craftsmen and craftswomen, indigenous ownership, and the provenance.

A question I asked myself that day, as I dragged my tired feet (the underground went on strike) across the streets, was whether a medical professional’s disciplines can exist within a museum professional’s. For the person with hydrocephalus, the initials J.C. were in the public album for students. I later found out who the person was — James Cardinal, only because he was noted in multiple medical journals for his disorder, and he was sort of a celebrity. For the woman with the idiopathic megacolon, I didn’t get her name. A 487 was the number on the glass jar that preserved a part of her. For me, it was difficult to know that the names of the owners of the body parts were omitted in a museum for teaching. However, does any aspect of my sentiment matter when it comes to medical education? While an inquiry for knowing the name and the story of the patient is reasonable in a museum, such request is extraordinary in a teaching medical facility. Where do doctors and museum professionals compromise the issues of names in a space of teaching, or, since the Gordon Museum of Pathology (and many more similar places) is private and only opens to certain public members, is there really a need to compromise?

The Siamese Twins, and Martha and Marie

I had a short conversation with the front desk staff member at the Vrolik Museum, Amsterdam during Easter holiday 2023. Noticing a cabinet displaying skeletons and stillborn corpses labelled ‘Siamese Twins’, I asked him if the term was still in use, as I heard that a more appropriate way was ‘conjoined twins.’

He replied yes to my question, and added that the term ‘Siamese twins’ had long been used. To change something familiar for another such as ‘conjoined twins’, which meant exactly the same, seemed a bit going too far.

I began my career in the museum sector in the UK. Although it only has been a short time, I sometimes forget that practice considered standard, appropriate, and correct may not be the same in another country. It is not only differences in museum vs. medical expertise, but also in politics, policies, societies, and languages.

Personally I am opposed to using the term ‘Siamese Twins’. The reason being that the genetic disorder is not limited to certain ethnicities. Chang and Eng Bunker, the two brothers from whom the term was coined, toured around America as curiosities in circuses when they were alive. To me, using ‘Siamese twins’ for any other case is to exoticise, or even to allude to freak shows and circus wonders.

It was yet another example of medical teaching vs. museum label language. The Vrolik Museum is a university teaching department-affiliated institution, which means the public may think the term Siamese twins is a living language in the medical field. In addition to that, the museum contained even less information regarding provenance for general visitors. The policy of no photography and video allowed, as well as the fact that the website does not have a collection portal accessible to the public, all increase the difficulty of making medical history transparent, at least from a museological perspective.

Conjoined twins took a different appearance in Medicinsk Museion, Copenhagen, where I met Martha and Marie, who were born in 1848. The two infants lived a few days and died soon after. Dr Carl E. M. Levy, who took over the twins and cared for them, published a thesis. After they died, the twins were made into three separate teaching materials: Their skeletons, their organs, and their taxidermy to preserve their appearance.

The only reason why I could write down so much more about Martha and Marie isn’t because my memory improved, but that Levy’s published article, the detailed panel at Medicinsk Museion, as well as an illustrated article in the exhibition book, which I have a copy of, all provided some context about how Martha and Marie came and left the world. I felt less distant from what I saw, yet reading that the twins’ parents objected to the publishing of Levy’s article reminded me once again of the conundrum of naming and ownership in medical museums.

Specimens, Objects, Collections, Items, and Things

It. Them. Pronouns are an easy way to refer to something on the display. However, is it a specimen, an object, a collection, an item, or, a thing?

When I started my current job in collection management, a senior manager once said, that one of the reasons to wear gloves when handling museum collections wasn’t about safety, but to act as buffer for any cultural sensitivity. For many, what we consider as “things” take on completely different meanings: Sacred, religious, divinity, surrogate, memory, and trauma. For whatever positive and negative reason, “things” might be the living ones.

Medical museum collections are things that normally are cast away to be preserved and cared for. They morph again when such places are open for the public, who may not view them the same as medical students do. A stillborn with mermaid syndrome is kept for its rarity of disorder, and becomes potentially a highlight for a different audience. The stillborn turns into a study specimen, an object or a collection to the management staff member, and finally a thing to a public visitor. The question is: What makes a museum practice that calls the stillborn an specimen unacceptable, when the basics of museum collection management is based on objectification? All of us can relate illness, loss, trauma; some are living through them as we speak, but in most cases, we’re not the owners of the body parts. So how does one, as both a museum professional and a visitor, decide what term is respectful enough, if such term exists?

The Portrait of My Colon

In the UK, most museums under the Human Tissue Act do not allow any photography and video. The only exception so far is the Hunterian Museum in London, where photos for personal use are allowed. The website, however, posts, “please respect the human remains displayed in the museum and do not post close ups of them on social media.”

Where I grew up, rarely anyone asked if they could take a photo in a museum. Taking pictures changed our experience of a visit, usually making it more positive and lasting longer. The behaviour is considered a modern participation that expands beyond the physical space. For institutions which want exposure and free promotion, nothing beats the internet, so where and how the line of respect is drawn, between engaging the audience and privacy for the dead? In addition to the question, if prohibiting photography is a way to show respect, is it effective, as mind and ideas are impossible to control?

I often wonder what other visitors think and react in places full of the dead and their remnants, where some allow photographs and some don’t. As the famous pink elephant paradox illustrates, the more you prohibit photography, the more people want to quickly snap one and go. Are they disrespectful? Are they curious? And if yes, the same question goes, is that morbid, to want to have something as a personal collection?

I have a confession to make. The Gordon Museum of Pathology said “only pencil and notepad for sketches are allowed”, but they never said “please don’t take pictures of your sketches and share them on social media” (I don’t think that could be simplified with an icon like the one for no photography). Does that make me disrespectful? In addition, I tried to make my sketch nice, or even, artistic. Did I make my behaviour better, or worse?

Interestingly, some museums which prohibit photography sell souvenirs, including postcards and prints of their highlight collections. At the Vrolik Museum, I bought a tote bag and a notebook which bore the skeleton sketch of a pair of conjoined twins. At the Medicinsk Museion, I bought a catalogue book of The Body Collected, with high-res images of the exhibited pathology samples. What do these paraphernalia say about my respect for the dead, and about how the museums view their things?

A Death In My Mind

I’m not writing to promote necrophilia, or to criticise any of the museums mentioned. As a museum professional and an avid medical museum visitor, the more I learned from the dead and the wounded, the more voices I have in my head (figuratively). There are, and there should be, no answer to any of the questions, as they are as complex as the living are.

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Guey-Mei Hsu

Collections Assistant of Anthropology, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, UK. She enjoys museums and quirky knowledge about all the non-living things. Often found in museum cafés queuing for food.